Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Scallion Cakes

I know, I know -- Chinese New Year has come and gone, already, but my office is having a Chinese New Year celebration today. It involves a lot of homemade food, a large group of people crammed into a very small kitchen, and is the perfect opportunity for me to try something new in the kitchen. By the time I got around to thinking about what to make, the good stuff was taken: soba noodles, almond cookies, pot stickers... I wanted to bake something, preferably sweet, but it seems like everyone was leaning that direction. So in the spirit of culinary adventure, I decided to make scallion cakes. Scallion cakes are round bits of dough sprinkled with oil, salt, and scallions then rolled into a bun, flattened, and fried. Far from baking cookies, but perhaps a bit more adventurous -- and I'm always game for kitchen chaos.
I was nervous about the frying part, and about the whole venture entirely, so I whipped up a half-batch over the weekend as a test. They turned out ok, but they were too big -- very doughy in the center and burned on the outside -- and didn't have enough scallions or oil in them, in my opinion. So I made one and a half recipes worth for the office and made them much smaller and flatter, adding a hefty amount of scallions to each cake rather than the paltry 1 teaspoon called for in the recipe. I think it was a success, although I ran out of scallions at the end and was left with a bit of extra dough. At least it's only flour mixed with water and I wasn't throwing away much -- just one recipe's amount of dough would have been too small, so I suppose all I really needed was another scallion or two to make it right. I used a total of fifteen scallions, a whopping 5 tablespoons of sesame oil, and an additional (brace yourselves) cup of vegetable oil to fry them in. Obviously all of the frying oil isn't consumed, but it's still quite a monstrous amount of oil to put in a pan. Like I said, this was my first stint truly frying something, and I must say it was a pretty successful venture. I'm already planning my next fry: latkes.

Scallion Cakes
This is a recipe for about ten small scallion cakes -- they're better small, if you want my honest opinion -- but you could also make four or five large cakes, as the recipe recommends. If you roll the dough out very thin, though, I think they end up tasting better because of the way they are rolled and fried, so you're better off erring on the side of having more rather than having bulkier cakes.
Begin by combining 2 cups of all-purpose flour with 3/4 teaspoon of sugar. I believe that the sugar helps the dough brown more evenly as it fries, but I'm not sure -- most of the recipes I found don't actually contain sugar, but this dough was pretty stellar, so I didn't want to mess with it. I toyed with the idea of adding salt to the dough, but decided against it: the salt might make the scallions soggier, I reasoned. I'm not sure if this is logical, but there's enough salt in this recipe already, so it's worth skipping it in the dough.
Stir 2/3 a cup boiling water into the flour mixture and mix just until the flour absorbs all of the water. Gradually -- the key here is gradually -- stir in enough cold water (1/4 to 1/3 a cup) until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl and form a ball. The dough should not be sticky; if it is, you added too much water. This can be remedied by adding a bit more flour until the dough smooths out and is no longer sticky.
You want to keep all surfaces that the dough will come in contact with, including your hands, well-floured throughout this escapade. After the dough has begun to come together, remove it from the bowl and knead for a few minutes on a lightly floured surface until it becomes smooth and elastic. You can add more flour at this stage, if necessary. Cover the dough with a slightly damp cloth and let rest for an hour. Chop up your scallions at this point: about fifteen stalks total, less if you desire more doughy cakes. You want to slice them very thinly, along the bias. Use some of the white part of the scallion as well as the entirety of the green portion.After the hour has passed, re-dust your surface and your hands with more flour and knead the dough until it is smooth. Place the dough back under the damp towel and remove about 1/10 of the dough -- no more than about two tablespoons worth -- and shape into a smooth ball. Using a floured rolling pin, roll the ball into an extremely flat round. Lightly brush the round with a good amount of sesame oil, until the entire surface is evenly coated, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Cover the surface with minced scallions -- about 1 to 1-1/2 tablespoons total.
Tightly roll the rounds into a fat rope and coil the rope into a small bun. Make sure to pinch the end of the rope into the roll to seal it together. Cover with a damp cloth and allow it to rest for 15 to 20 minutes. Repeat these steps until all of your dough and scallions are gone -- the scallions may go first, which is what happened to me, but you can use less scallions per cake if necessary.
While you wait for the dough to rest, heat up about 2/3 to 1 cup of vegetable oil in a large skillet or a wok, if you have one. The oil should be wiggling but not smoking when it is hot enough to fry. After the dough has rested, re-dust the surface and your rolling pin with more flour and roll out one roll into a flat round. The scallions will begin to poke through, and this indicates that you should stop rolling: the less covered by dough the scallions are, the more likely they are to burn. They still taste great, but aesthetically they're not as pleasing. If you coiled the dough properly, the scallions should make a nifty spiral shape within the round. Don't flatten the dough too much: the pockets of air contained within the coil make for more air in the dough, which translates to a puffier fried cake. So watch it with that rolling pin -- easy does it.
Now it's time to fry the cake! Fry each round one at a time in the oil, carefully turning about two to four minutes in, when the bottom has turned golden brown. You might need to poke the center down to make sure that the round cooks evenly, but don't press too hard or the dough will flatten out and lose its nice puffy quality. Also, as you're frying, periodically take the cake out of the oil and dump any excess that has pooled on the top back into the pan. It gets chilly on top and the cake won't fry as evenly with a cold pool of oil on top of it. I used tongs to flip the dough, and since I don't own a splatter screen. Bad! Bad! I had one in my hand this weekend at the store and put it back on the shelf, thinking: "I don't want to invest three dollars in this frying business, I'm only going to use it once." Shame on me: I want to fry everything now. It's addictive, both the process and the actual food. When the cake has evenly browned on both sides, remove from the oil and shake a bit to get rid of any excess oil. Place on a bed of paper towels and sprinkle the top with a pinch of salt; then, place two paper towels on top and press lightly to remove even more of the frying oil. Allow it to cool between the towels as you fry the remainder of the cakes.
These are best served hot, but since they're for an office party, I brought them cold and cut them in half so that they were more bite-sized and plentiful. I personally love the taste of cold fried food, especially Chinese food, because it tastes like leftover takeout, but I'm not sure my office-mates will agree. I'm crossing my fingers, because I ate a quarter-slice this morning and it was terrific. If no one else agrees? I must be crazy. They're just as good hot as they are cold, if you ask me.
Wish me luck! I love to cook for other people, but I fear the aftermath: will they like it? Will everyone in the office now hate me because my scallion cakes weren't perfectly round, and also some of them are a bit burned around the edges? Hopefully not: this was my first time frying anything, and amidst the oil splatters, narrowly-thwarted burns, and slippery floor (oil gets everywhere when you fry) emerged some decent -- in my opinion -- scallion cakes.

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